Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Politics of Democracy




A decade after the end of the Cold War, the world's democracies are planning a big bash in Europe. But this fling convened by the United States, the old boy, and Poland, the new kid on the block, is looking less like a celebration, and more and more like the familiar diplomatic conclave it was destined to be. With at least 100 foreign ministers set to roam the halls in Warsaw next week, sweet odes to democracy will surely include a few verses of self-justification sung to the dark melody of power politics.


The Warsaw attendance list offers a lesson in splitting hermeneutical hairs. Clearly, the invitation committee was burdened by what literary critics call over-interpretation and politicians call pragmatism. Iran is out f overriding U.S. interests, despite recent reforms f and Russia is in f overriding European interests, despite political decay. The old generation of once-upon-a-time populists has overstayed its welcome: Zimbabwe can't come because President Robert Mugabe stole land, and Peru's President Alberto Fujimori may have to relinquish his invite because he stole an election. Should Persian Gulf sheikdoms, with mock parliaments, be invited? How about Kuwait, where women can't vote?


Mixing the imperatives of idealism with many categories of realism isn't easy: The Warsaw agenda is a carefully honed effort to reinforce democracy among states that thought ideology died when the Berlin Wall fell. Not a bad thing f there are worse organizing principles for politics than those dedicated to the rule of law and popular participation. But with due deference to Poland, this is a U.S. show, about building U.S. alliances. It's a chance to anchor NATO expansion with political values; bypass the European Union's imminent enlargement as former communist states join its fold; and drape rare moments of Third World political hope in the cloth of mercantile advantage. And, critically, it's about crafting a diplomatic legacy for the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton before it uses up all its time.


The collapse of communism in Europe allowed "new Democrats" to think big and jettison old diplomatic divides. Nixon conservatives had staunchly asserted that alliances were based on common foreign policy interests, domestic politics be damned. Carter liberals believed in a foreign policy of values, and tried to organize U.S. policy, in part, by promoting the rights of man. Neither model worked perfectly: President Richard Nixon's legacy brought a generation of Latin dictators and Third World proxy wars; President Jimmy Carter's efforts failed to persuade world leaders that doing the right thing for the right reasons would lead the world to respect rights. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush transformed the use of force into a moraldoctrine and then basked in the Soviet empire's decline.


Enter Clinton, president of the club of multiple convergence. He has pursued peace through force, ethnic harmony through partitioned separatism, democracy through markets. Under this administration, the United States often can't find words to condemn tainted elections in important countries, embraces dictators to manage wars and endlessly recalculates its own interests.


This contradictory foreign policy is one reason the main show in Warsaw may be elsewhere. While foreign ministers gather for formal statements, the NGOs and political parties vital to the world's democracies will be meeting across the street. This other meeting may mime official proceedings rather than copy the antics of Seattle. But it's a critical reminder that democracy is about citizens who voluntarily empower governments to help organize their lives.


Domestic politics f democratic politics f can be helped along when diplomacy doesn't contradict its efforts. A solid basis of human rights offers citizens the capacity to claim accountable, representative government. But they need foreign powers to validate their rights to change policy. Democracies enfranchise many different opinions, and the United States may not like all of them. That's where toleration comes in: When a superpower can share the power of its ideals, it sets the stage for real democracy.


Poets sometimes clarify what diplomacy muddles. "Whatever you say reverberates, whatever you don't say speaks for itself," cautions Poland's Nobel Prize-winning Wislawa Szymborska. "So either way you're talking politics."


Poland's post-Cold War history teaches cautious respect for state power, humility in the face of democratic transition and one key fact: Firm principles only enter policy by means of open politics. Protecting that political space may be the most important agenda for Warsaw's nascent community of democracies. That's what talking politics means.


Paula R. Newberg has served as an adviser on rights and democratic transition to the United Nations. She contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.